Witness: Roberts paid girlfriends’ bills for a decade

jmcfadden@heraldonline.comAugust 30, 2013 

— Melvin Roberts paid for his girlfriend’s teeth and the clothes she sold at a store in Gaffney.

The York attorney, who practiced law for 55 years, financed Julia Phillips’ dental work, doctor’s visits, prescription pill purchases, cars, trips on cruise ships and to beach houses, credit cards and bills to debtors, Roberts’ former office manager testified Thursday in Phillips’ murder trial.

That went on until the end of 2008 when Julia’s Inc., a Gaffney boutique Phillips managed but Roberts owned, incurred a $60,000 shortfall, said Marie Kaplowitz, who also tracked Roberts’ finances.

Roberts pulled away from the business after four years and made Phillips solely responsible for paying the bills. By January 2010, Kaplowitz said, $500 was all that was left in the store’s bank account.

Now, Phillips, 69, is standing trial for Roberts’ murder. Police found the former York mayor dead in his driveway on Feb. 4, 2010.

Phillips claims Roberts was killed after a robber bound her with duct tape and dragged her behind a brick wall. That robber, she told police, scuffled with Roberts before apparently hitting him on the head with a pipe and firing a gun.

Police say Roberts was strangled with a zip tie.

Prosecutors say Phillips became greedy and desperate when she realized Roberts planned to end their decade-long relationship and cut her off financially. She stood to inherit $150,000 worth of property in his will. The only way to get it, prosecutors say, was to kill him.

On Thursday, the fourth day of Phillips’ trial, Kaplowitz testified that by the end of 2009, Roberts and Phillips “weren’t getting along at all.”

Since it opened in 2004, Roberts paid for Julia Inc.’s inventory, utilities and other operating expenses, Kaplowitz said. He also paid for Phillips’ AARP health benefits, utilities for her Gaffney home, gave her credit cards and afforded her a life of luxury that included trips to Kiawah Island, Myrtle Beach and her choice of automobiles.

“She chose what vehicle she wanted,” Kaplowitz said, and “she got it.”

Even by her own lawyer’s admission, Phillips was a bad, “inconsistent” businesswoman.

Once Roberts pulled out of Phillips’ business, Merle Norman, the makeup franchise operating in the store, dissolved its dealings with Julia’s Inc., Kaplowitz said. By January 2010, the store had $500 in its bank account, even after Roberts gave Phillips $10,000 for operating expenses a year earlier.

Angela Durham, who worked for Phillips at the store, despite being paid $5 an hour and only getting her paycheck occasionally, testified that she overheard several arguments between Phillips and Roberts, who wanted to close the store.

Durham said she saw Phillips give her son, William Hunter Stephens, money from the cash register despite slow sales. Phillips once asked to borrow money to pay her light bill. Durham’s family agreed as long Phillips paid her back two days later. She didn’t.

Phillips discussed with her son Roberts’ taking her credit cards, his seeing another woman and his plans to close the store, Durham said.

Phillips’ response: “She wasn’t going to leave,” said Kris Hodge, the 13th Circuit assistant solicitor prosecuting Phillips.

The solicitor’s office in Greenville is prosecuting Phillips because York County solicitors recused themselves due to past associations with Roberts, who worked as an attorney in York for 55 years. York County judges also recused themselves from the case, which is being heard before Circuit Court Judge Derham Cole of Spartanburg.

Bobby Frederick, Phillips’ Myrtle Beach defense attorney, objected to Durham’s testimony after she stepped off the stand, citing a legal rule that prevents the introduction of evidence during a trial that might prejudice a jury.

Durham’s testimony, he said, points to “prior bad acts” irrelevant to the case.

Hodge answered that objection by once again outlining what prosecutors plan to establish as Phillips’ motive for murder: “She was desperate for money and used Roberts. Legal and illegal, she needed to keep living the life she was living until he kicked her out.”

Cole did not rule on Frederick’s objection before dismissing court for the day.

After Roberts’ slaying, police questioned Stephens but never charged him. On Thursday, Ronnie Burgess, who lived across the street from Phillips’ Gaffney home, testified that he drove Stephens to York after hearing that Phillips had been assaulted.

Stephens was carrying a revolver in the pocket of his brown trench coat.

“I told him you can’t carry a gun to a crime scene,” said Burgess, a former state trooper.

Burgess picked Phillips up from the police station after her lengthy interview with police. On the way to Gaffney, Phillips and Stephens talked between themselves.

Phillips “seemed calm,” Burgess said, and asked him to stop at Bi-Lo and then her store so she could grab some Mike’s Hard Lemonade.

Earlier in the day Thursday, jurors watched more police videos of Phillips’ interviews. In them, Phillips shared more details of her account of her escape from the duct tape she says an unknown Hispanic attacker used to bind her minutes before she heard a gunshot and later saw her longtime boyfriend Melvin Roberts lying still on the cold, wet ground.

In a second videotaped interview with police, dated three days after Roberts’ death, Phillips recounted details of an attempted robbery, describing how a money-hungry attacker placed a cloth or hood over her head as he almost simultaneously applied duct tape to her head, mouth, eyes and later her feet and arms. He then dragged her by her hair behind a brick retaining wall, she said.

She told police she did not hear much after that until she managed to see the glint of Roberts' truck headlights as he drove into the yard. She mumbled, "That's Melvin," prompting her attacker to threaten to kill her, shove her to the ground and her face into the mud and call her a profane name in his "foreign tongue."

Phillips told police that she heard Roberts scuffle with the attacker before Roberts shouted a profanity. Then she heard the sound of a pipe hitting the ground before a single shot was fired.

Phillips said she used a key to tear through the duct tape. She ran to her car, turned on the heat, locked the door and turned on her headlights, which shined on Roberts' body as he lay in the "fetal position" on the ground.

York Police Lt. Dale Edwards testified that Phillips’ story changed and new details were added with every new interview.

Those inconsistencies and Phillips’ ramblings became fodder for Frederick, who said his client craves attention and often exaggerates.

“Did you ever consider this is how Julia is...who she is?” Frederick asked Edwards.

“No,” Edwards said.

York Police Detective William Mumaw detailed the inconsistencies he found when he arrived at Roberts’ house on the night of his killing.

Along with Phillips’ dry, mud-free clothes, Mumaw said, her car seat was dry with only one leaf on it; Roberts’ notepad, coffee cup and newspaper were still in his car; his wallet was still in his pocket filled with a few hundred dollars; and his car was out of place.

“Melvin was a creature of habit,” Mumaw said, and typically parked in the same spot in the driveway each night. The night of his death, his car was a few feet from where it should have been.

Mumaw said it looked as if he stopped to speak with someone.

Court will resume today, when Mumaw is expected to finish his testimony.

Jonathan McFadden •  803-329-4082

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